Inequality in the PHB

Adapted from a speech given to the ANU Academic Board.

Being a regional student, my experience of coming to university was somewhat different to many students at ANU. I studied at Cowra High School, the local high school in a small town a few hours north of Canberra. I was the Dux of my school, receiving an ATAR of 95, the highest mark my school had received in the last 15 years at the time. Like many students with a passion for science and a strong desire to attend the ANU, I had hoped to study the Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) – I saw it as a degree unique to the ANU – a degree for high achievers and the top science degree in the country.

Yet despite my strong passion for science, and my 10 bonus points, I was still not eligible for the PhB – the ANU does not accept bonus points for degrees that require an ATAR of 98 or above. Instead I was accepted into the Bachelor of Advanced Science Honours, another high-achieving degree with an ATAR cut-off of 95, which does count bonus points.

I remember my first few weeks of science classes last year – you’d walk into a lecture, lab or tutorial and all the focus would be placed on the PhB students – whether it be extra mentorship, programs, add-ons, tutorials, exams or other services – the entire science cohort would know about it. I’d walk into a lecture and hear the line “and for those students doing the PhB…” at least 5 times in a given class. In labs and tutorials, PhB students would form their own groups and cliques.

Every day in my science degree so far, I have been made to feel like a second-class science student. I know, after discussing this with my peers, that many of them feel the same. I understand that this is somewhat a cultural problem behind the prestige factor, or stigma, attached to the PhB. I also appreciate the need for the ANU to make the PhB a ‘cut above the rest’. It is intended as the flagship science degree of the university and to be something more than the Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours) or Bachelor of Science degrees, which are offered at most tertiary institutions around Australia.

I’ve always considered myself being capable of undertaking the PhB. In fact, many students here at the ANU are. And whilst the argument that we “simply get the marks and transfer into the degree” later can be made, there are so many unique components to the PhB program – the camps, mentorship and research projects, just to name a few. The longer it takes students to join the program, the further they fall behind, and more they miss out on the benefits of the PhB.

It’s problematic that ANU offer such a transformative and unique degree, but only accept students from a very small demographic of the Australian schooling population. With a subject that relies so heavily upon collaboration and innovative ideas, diversity is crucial to both science and the PhB. For that reason, more should be done to ensure that more rural and otherwise disadvantaged students enter into the Bachelor of Philosophy.

The first and most obvious way that this can be done, is through greater promotion of the degree to rural areas, but more important is that there needs to be greater assistance for students who fall short of the ATAR requirement. Whilst I understand that the ANU has an academic reputation to uphold, and appreciate that some academics and staff of the ANU would be opposed to dropping ATAR requirements across the board, the ATAR cut off of 99 is simply unachievable, not to mention unheard of, to the vast majority of schools across Australia.

Arrangements like the Rural Medicine Entry Schemes that operate at undergraduate medical schools could well be a model to emulate. Whilst the schemes vary between institutions, they include:
Allocating a certain number of places for rural students in the cohort. This ensures that the best rural students, regardless of their ATAR, are included in the program
Reducing the ATAR by several points and adding further applications and interview stages to still remain selective, and ensure competitive applicants
To include, some or all, of the bonus points awarded to students

Such an entry scheme would ensure that we retain the high quality of scholar currently enrolled in the PhB while also broadening access to include rural students.

Furthermore, there is a misconception by many rural students of the PhB; when I told my family and friends that my first preference for university was the “Bachelor of Philosophy”, I was given these weird looks and questioned about what happened to my love for science. Having to explain to people that “it’s like the doctorate of philosophy – science research at an undergraduate level” was often confusing. People simply didn’t know what the degree was about just by looking at the name.

We could adopt the viewpoint that if you don’t understand that the PhB is a science degree, than you’re not the kind of student we want in the program. Or, we could see it as a problem with the way the PhB is represented, and the lack of exposure rural students get to it. There needs to be greater promotion of the PhB to rural areas – rural students aren’t going to want to enter a program that they don’t know exists.

But, from first hand experience – when you pick up an undergraduate course guide, and you flick through degrees, and see programs which require ATARs of 99 plus, you tend to ignore them. If a student from a rural school has never heard or seen anyone get an ATAR of 99, then why would they pay attention to a degree with that cut off when they already know they won’t get it? Similarly, if a rural school has never had anyone get an ATAR above 90 in over 15 years, then why would the school’s careers counsellor make an effort to promote a degree like the PhB to their students – when they know that no bonus points are taken?

If the ANU genuinely wants diversity in an elite degree like the PhB, and want to assert it as a science-research degree – then you need to make it more “within-reach” of students. Once these students think they can get into the degree, then they’ll look into it and see what it’s all about. Let’s make the PhB an elite degree, not an elitist one.